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Moon’s dog-and-pony show

Aug 07,2018
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Choi Sang-yeon
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

The late President Kim Dae-jung was a natural speaker, but it was his belief that a politician should never feel embarrassed for reading off a script. During formal events such as Liberation Day, he read speeches as written to avoid mistakes, but he never faced public rebuke for lacking communication skills. In fact, he is remembered for making great speeches.

In contrast, former President Lee Myung-bak made more than 100 radio addresses to avoid public criticism of his communication abilities, but he still failed. Not many people saw his patronizing speeches loaded with self-praise as communication. What’s important is not the way a president delivers but a president’s passion and sincerity. Trust comes from sincerity, not excessive emotion.

The Moon Jae-in administration is currently facing a dilemma. A few days ago, the Blue House issued a comment about a Korean abductee in Libya. “His country and his president have never forgotten about him,” the statement read. “We pay attention to even the silence of the desert.” Moon supporters might say it was a statement that touched people’s hearts, but it was a far cry from the spokesman’s duty of accurately delivering the president’s message.

When three firefighters were killed during a mission in March, the Blue House said, “They were 33, 29 and 23 years old. Because they were living the spring of their lives, we cannot hide our grief.” Whether it was intended or not, the messages delivered a contrast to the previous administration’s unemotional handling of the Sewol ferry disaster.

But right now, we are talking about an urgent hostage situation. We still vividly remember the shocking abduction and execution of Kim Sun-il in Iraq in 2004. In such a critical time, there has never been a government that sought to please its domestic supporters by reading a poetic message. The Blue House’s statement was not the standard strategic and stern voice.

Moon’s recent surprise meeting with locals at a pub was anything but surprising. Rather, it was all prearranged. One of the participants campaigned for Moon during last year’s presidential election. To a certain extent, it is unavoidable to control a presidential event. Most people will agree with that. Even Park Chung Hee once drank makgeolli, Korean rice wine, with a farmer while wearing a straw hat.

It was no different than Moon’s event, yet Moon greeted the people with, “I guess you are a bit surprised,” when he arrived. He seemed to suggest that he did not know about the arrangement, and if he really didn’t, then his public relations team had failed to promote the president’s sincerity.

Until now, the Democratic Party has condemned former conservative presidents’ visits to traditional markets as political shows. “The president must not visit a cafe because it will drive away customers,” it said in one commentary.

Moon’s pub visit might have differed from past dog-and-pony shows if it had actually produced a change in policy after listening to the public’s opinions. Instead, the government finalized a minimum wage increase shortly after the event. It might not have been a political show, but it was politics profiteering from emotions.

The event was probably set up by Tak Hyun-min, a presidential aide famous for his strategies appealing to voters’ emotions. The problem is that learning his method has become increasingly popular. Even at government ministries, Tak’s method has become a textbook strategy for all retail politics events. Now, whether he will continue to serve his post or not has become its own publicity event.

After Tak expressed his intention to step down, the Blue House reacted by saying, “We will let you go when the first snow falls,” a message one might see in a fading romantic relationship. It was not cool, but we understand that the Blue House tried. After the message, the women’s community, which has long demanded Tak’s resignation for his series of controversial and sexist remarks in the past, held a public performance by spray-painting snow on a wall.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama once faced criticism for turning his daily life into an endless campaign by releasing sentimental images such as one of him holding an umbrella for his aide. But he worked hard to communicate with opposition parties. He made a marathon of phone calls and drank whiskey with a Republican to create a breakthrough in the opposition-controlled Congress.

Many Koreans laud Moon for his communication, but opposition parties have failed to cooperate with him and the National Assembly has been stuck in gridlock. If the efforts to tap into people’s emotions were instead used to communicate with the opposition, our country’s politics would drastically change.

If the administration takes credit for all of the country’s successes while blaming the failures on its predecessors, isn’t that just profiteering from the public’s sentiment with publicity events?

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 6, Page 30